James Salter's new novel about a doomed or unlucky young pilot does what none of its characters can: It performs a rescue mission and healingly alters the past. "Cassada," Salter's sixth novel, was also his second, "The Arm of Flesh," "published," the author says, "in 1961 and largely a failure." "The Arm of Flesh" flashed across the sky, turned a few critics' heads and vanished. It has never been reprinted. Clumsy, beautiful and as ambitious as its focal character, it employed 17 first-person narrators, and its flaw was an obvious one: Salter failed sufficiently to distinguish among his narrators, many of them in walk-on roles.
Salter has rechristened and rewritten "The Arm of Flesh." The crowd of onlookers, gathered as if at the scene of an accident, has been fused into one authoritative third-person voice--Salter's own--and he has mostly stripped his prose of the first book's lyrical and colloquial indulgences. But the plot and characters remain substantially what they were. Salter has always been a cold-eyed if sympathetic fatalist, and it would seem to violate his own nature, as it were, to give any of his people a second chance at theirs. "The Arm of Flesh" has hardly changed in becoming "Cassada," except stylistically.
But that, in a way, is everything. Salter is above all a stylist, admired especially for his sentences. His style is a kind of refined notation, a precipitate of the essential. It has the starkness of someone's journal. Salter will compile a scene's necessary features in flat, even dutiful sentences before producing something stabbingly and fatally apt. His sharp devices are the image, the aphorism, the declaration. In "A Sport and a Pastime," about railway cars at the beginning of a journey: "It's pleasant seeing all the plaques with the numbers printed on them. It's like counting money." In "Light Years," about New York City: "Even those who have been rejected by it cannot leave." In "Cassada," about a pilot's lost moment with a woman: "He can see it all the time but he cannot see it again."
The best of Salter's sentences feel at once improvised and lapidary, and whole passages will sometimes astonish like a miraculous run of beginner's luck. Luck has nothing to do with it, of course--"My idea of writing," he has said, "is of unflinching and continual effort"--but a type of sentence implies a way of being, and Salter's characters would like to create in their lives the impression given by his sentences: that of something got right on the first try.
In "Cassada," Maj. Dunning, who presides over Robert Cassada's squadron, is "an image of calm, like a judge examining briefs," and this is perhaps the way to imagine Salter at his desk as well. He has written relatively little during 40-odd years, as if waiting to see which perceptions are final. In his 1997 memoir, "Burning the Days," he described memory as "being a measure, in its imprint, of the value of things." What is of value is judged in terms like critic Walter Pater's: to perceive passing moments with artistic keenness and to develop and extrude one's character with something like artistic grace.
And so he is naturally a lyrical writer, often setting himself with the lyric's original task of praise. The lyricism is no less honest--it is probably more so--for being at times perfectly conventional. In "Light Years," his great study of a marriage more lovely than loving: "Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives." Salter celebrates what most everyone of a certain class does: good food, fine accommodations, the sights of Europe, attractive women. Sometimes it's as if the muse has been hired by a lifestyle magazine: "They live in Levis and sunlight." But he will also celebrate a person's achieved character, referring to certain pilots and friends as "gods": "Frailty, human though it may be, interests me less."